The Red Queen’s Race

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass, which is, incidentally, a classic tour-de-force, the Red Queen tells Alice that running as fast as she can will not take her anywhere. To get anywhere, she must run even faster. The concept of “the Red Queen’s race” crops up occasionally, and Isaac Asimov even wrote a story with that title.

Today, unfortunately, I see western society developing along lines that make a Red Queen’s race all too likely. What do I mean?

A few examples might help. It’s widely known and often cited that working Americans take much less vacation time than people in any other industrialized nation, and the amount of vacation time taken continues to decrease. Yet, the real earnings of average Americans, after adjustment for inflation [and that adjustment, as I’ve noted earlier, does not take into account the full amount of inflation] have actually decreased in recent years. Now, the easy answer, and the one that the demagogues of the left quickly invoke, is that’s because all the “excess” goes to the “rich.” Some of it does, but one could confiscate the amount of “excess” and redistribute it across the population, and it wouldn’t change the overall picture much, and not for long. Spread across the population, those hundreds of billions of assets of the “truly rich” might increase family income by a few thousand dollars — for all of one year, because you can bet that sort of confiscatory taxation would drive those individuals right out of the country. On the other hand, the demagogues of the right claim that the problem is that the government taxation steals money from the productive and gives it to the unproductive. And while it is indubitably true that the U.S. tax system redistributes income, the United States is far less redistributive than most European countries, and the recipients of that redistributed income generally spend every last cent on buying goods and services from others, often creating more income than is “taken” for society as whole.

Yet “real” wages are tending to decline. Why?

First, we’re in a global economy, and now that technology and education are more wide-spread, other countries can produce many goods more cheaply. How are Americans compensating? They’re working longer and harder, rather than reduce their standard of living. Now that cheap credit is vanishing, and the piggy-bank of home equity has been deflated, they’re dipping more into savings and retirement.

Second, energy costs are rising, and that will squeeze U.S. businesses — and employee compensation — even more.

Even so, the Red Queen problem doesn’t lie mainly in income, but in resources and outlays, and it’s exacerbated by our vaunted technology. For example, two hundred years ago, if you got cancer, there wasn’t anything to be done, and you died. If you had congestive heart failure, not all the doctors in the world could do anything, no matter what your wealth might have been. Today, an “average,” run-of-the-mill cancer treatment can easily exceed $200,000 a year. Already, annual Medicare expenditures alone exceed $200 billion, and health care costs are increasing more than twice the rate of other services, and that doesn’t factor in private health care costs or the ever more expensive drugs and treatments.

Likewise, in the past travel and transport were limited, as were goods. The result of the industrial revolution, technology, and globalization is that more and more of the world has the ability to buy more and more goods and services… but the total of those goods and services is limited. Call it, if you will, Malthusian economics, postponed, delayed, and modified, but Malthusian nonetheless.

The real Red Queen’s race is the one that has been around since the beginning of civilization — and one whose effects have been largely mitigated or delayed in the industrialized west for the past century or so. Simply put, we have now reached the point in the development of our civilization where it will shortly become obvious to all levels of all societies that, technology and ingenuity notwithstanding, we cannot physically provide the very best in health care, commodity goods, services, housing, and food to every individual, or even to a sizable fraction of our populations.

Yes, we will be able to provide health care for most problems for most people, but not the range of life-extending and cancer-controlling and other extensive procedures for everyone — just for a comparative few. Yes, we will be able to provide fuel for transportation, but not fuel for four billion personal vehicles [a rate roughly half the U.S. average applied to the entire world, and if you think I’m being unreasonable, just look at the rate of growth of motor vehicles in China]. Yes, we will be able to provide housing, but not the 2,400 average square footage per house for U.S. new housing. And since the United States will be competing in a world market for energy, food, goods, and services, we won’t be able to isolate ourselves from these effects the way we have in the past.

Welcome back to the Red Queen’s race.